Louisiana House kills bill to restructure East Baton Rouge Parish schools

NOLA.com / The Times Picayune

The Louisiana House rejected on Wednesday (May 28) a proposal backed by the Baton Rouge area business community to restructure the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Senate Bill 636, sponsored by state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, and drafted with the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, would have provided for a major shift of power in the district from the central office to principals and individual schools. The bill  passed the Senate 23-12 and advanced to the full House by a 10-6 vote from the House education committee after hours of debate.

After about 50 minutes of debate, the House voted 60-31 to reject the proposal, prompting cheers and applause from the upper gallery where a group of local parents and educators sat. Since the bill needs a two-thirds vote to come up for reconsideration, it’s essentially dead.

Some saw the measure as an answer to the St. George movement’s initial desire to break free: the parish’s broken school system. Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who was the first to speak against the bill Wednesday and is also opposed to the incorporation of St. George, said she didn’t think the bill would have done anything for the people who live in the St. George area, since they want to be sever completely.

Lionel Rainey, spokesman for the Committee to Incorporate the City of St. George, wasn’t overly confident the proposed changes to the school district would have provided a solution to their problems but suggested defeat of the bill signaled a deafest attitude regarding local education reform and would embolden the movement.

“The status quo has a strangle hold on public education in this parish and it would now seem that St. George is the only thing that can release their grip,” Rainey said in an emailed statement after the vote. “Senate Bill 636 was a baby step in the direction of reforming the failed East Baton Rouge Parish Public School System and it was defeated by a swarm of lobbyists, unions, magnet parents and special interest groups.”

The legislation is fiercely opposed by the school system and its supporters. They say that principals don’t want the autonomy that the bill provides, and that they don’t have the training or desire to do things like manage transportation or food services contracts.

Though the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, which formally opposed the bill by adopting a resolution against it, surely saw the bill’s defeat as a victory, the statement issued after the vote attempted to harness the good will of those who drafted the legislation to work with them to improve schools.

“By working together as a community, we have the opportunity now to galvanize the focus on student achievement,” the statement said. The district, too, would consider incorporating “certain provisions” of the bill regarding principal autonomy, parent and community empowerment into their own plans to “transform the system.”

BRAC said in a statement after the vote that the organization would not give up its efforts to improving the district, despite the proposal’s defeat. “The community faces a crisis of confidence in the status quo of East Baton Rouge public education,” BRAC president and CEO Adam Knapp said. “It remains the pressing issue we face and one that must bring this whole community together for urgent action and change.”

Though efforts were made earlier in the session to get most — if not all — Baton Rouge area lawmakers on board with the bill, the divide among Capital City delegates ultimately split along party and racial lines. Reps. Smith, Regina Barrow and Ted James, all black Democrats from Baton Rouge, spoke against the bill. Reps. Steve Carter and Franklin Foil, both white Republicans from Baton Rouge, spoke in support of it as Carter pitched the legislation at the podium.

The bill drafting process failed to bring enough educators and parents to the table, Smith and James argued. And opposition from the school board, superintendent and about 15 parent-teachers groups made it clear legislators shouldn’t interfere.

Carter said all of the delegates want schools to improve, but the difference lies in which side has a sense of urgency to fix them. “They think that where we’re going now, the status is good,” Carter said. “I’m for change.”

Knapp’s gave one suggestion for change when he asked parents and citizens “to be thoughtful in their choices of school board members during the upcoming election.” Knapp cautioned, too, that the public “clamoring” for better schools — possibly a reference to St. George supporters — would continue to do so.

“This issue is not going away, and in the pursuit of positive change, neither is BRAC,” he said.

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